Before the lockdown, the Rev. Matthew Rivers wasn’t a fan of Facebook. But last spring when COVID-19 shut the doors of St. John’s Chapel, he reluctantly ventured into preaching via social media. To his surprise, the sermon and worship videos allowed the church to grow during the pandemic and expand the ministry far beyond its Eastside setting.
“God used the thing I wasn’t really enamored with, to enlarge the church,” Rivers said with a laugh.
In recent months, 22 new members have joined St. John’s Chapel, with about 30 percent discovering the church through its Facebook postings. In addition, more than 60,000 people around the world are following its Facebook services, which also feature the First Lady of the church, Chaplain Henrietta Rivers.
“The online ministry has been pivotal; St. John’s has been exposed,” Henrietta says. “We know God’s vision is larger than our small building.”
St. John’s celebrated in November as Bishop Lawrence confirmed 15 people into their new life in Christ during a laying-on of hands service. In addition, four transfer members were received by the Bishop. The array of newcomers included blacks and whites, men and women, with an age range from 13 to 70-plus years. This lines up with Pastor Matthew’s longing to shepherd a diverse flock.
“Early on, I had said a prayer to God to give me a church that was cross-racial, that looked like the Kingdom of Heaven,” Pastor Rivers said.
When St. John’s was founded in 1839, its membership included 13 whites and 10 blacks. “God gave me a church where that kind of diverse history had already been established,” Rivers said. He is enthusiastic about reviving that tradition.
The spirit of inclusiveness was a magnet to Dr. Ann Kulze, who recently transferred her membership. “I love the full spectrum of diversity amongst the church members— black, white, wealthy, poor, highly educated, uneducated,” Kulze said. “Diversity is at the bedrock of a true and resilient community.”
The Riverses began their leadership at St. John’s in mid-2018 with only 18 members. Today, the church has about 110 members, plus others from the community who regularly attend. Even though the church doors are open again, Pastor Matthew plans to continue the online services. He’s even been recognized as “that Facebook preacher” by strangers at Costco and a local doctor’s office. Pastor Rivers knows no strangers. He invites all to visit St. John’s if they are seeking a church home.
“Matt is a pastor to the people of St. John’s Chapel, but he’s also a pastor to the Kingdom of God,” Henrietta said. “He reaches beyond the walls of St. John’s.”
By Pringle Franklin, St. Philip’s Church, Charleston